A well-educated scholar was sought to mentor Zeb al-Nisa Begum ‘Makhfi’, daughter of the last great Timurid-Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. Her learning capability was not a secret from her father who gifted her 30 thousand gold mohur when she became a Hafiza (One who memorizes the entire Quran). She resembled her aunt Jahanara Begum in knowledge, so when Aurangzeb ascended the throne he decided to arrange one of the best tutors for his beloved daughter. This task was offered to Muhammad Sa’id, having recently arrived from Iran, he happily agreed. And the bond that formed between the teacher and his disciple lived up till the very end.
Muhammad Sa’id commonly known by his nom-de-plume ‘Ashraf’ Mazandarani was born in Isfahan somewhere between circa 1620 to 1625 C.E. in a prominent family. His maternal uncle was the renowned Muhammad Baqer Majlisi also known as Allama Majlisi. He received his primary education at home under the supervision of his father Mulla Muhammad Saleh and later attended one of Isfahan’s Madrasa. The city was known to be the best learning center in Iran at that time. He studied the Quran, Hadith, Ilm al-Kalam, Ilm al-Rijal, jurisprudence, mathematics, medicine, astrology, and poetry from a very young age. He learned the science of poetry from the famous Persian poet Muhammad Ali ‘Saib’ Tabrizi and proved to be an outstanding student. Having reached the Mughal court in the year 1658/59 C.E. through his caliber and of course, ‘Saib’ Tabrizi’s connections and within a year of service he was asked by the Emperor himself to teach his daughter Zeb al-Nisa ‘Makhfi’.
As pointed out by Stephen Frederic Dale, his poems on India have special importance. He showcased his admiration for India through his writings, even acknowledging his love and nostalgia for Iran, simultaneously. ‘Ashraf’s works speak about the richness and effulgence of India.
ہر کہ از ایران بہ ہند اید تصور می کند
انکہ چون کوکب بہ شب، در ہند زر پاشیدہ است
“Whoever comes from Iran to India imagine
That in India gold is scattered like stars in the night sky”
در ایران نیست جز ہندآرزو، بی روزگاران را
تمام روز باشد حسرت شب، روزہداران را
“Among destitute Iranians there is nothing but desire for India,
All day the fasting people long for night”
Diwan-i ‘Ashraf’ Mazandarani has more than 250 ghazals, 400 Rubaii (double couplets), and around 400 Tak-Baiti (single couplets). He also penned down eight masnavis like Masnavi Bahar-o-saqi-nama. He has also written a Masnavi on the Indian festival Holi.
After spending thirteen years in India, Ashraf Mazandarani asked ‘Makhfi’ permission to visit his family and friends in Iran, through a long poem as an application, however, she rejected it out of fear that he would never come back. he then wrote another long poem promising her that he would verily return to India after spending some time in Iran. He writes;
نسبت چو باطنی است چہ دھلی چہ اصفهان
دل پیش تست تن چہ بہ کابل چہ قندھار
یکبارہ از وطن نتوان برگرفت دل
در غربتم اگرچہ فزون است اعتبار
Acquaintance with someone is related to esoteric in sense;
It doesn’t matter where do I live in this world, my heart always belongs to you,
It’s impossible to forsake the love for your native place all at once;
Though I’m confident I would be in this strange land.
He visited Iran around 1671 C.E. but soon returned to India. On the way back he wrote an elegy as a farewell to Isfahan, which he starts with this beautiful couplet;
خون فشان از عشرت آباد صفاھان می روم
ھمچو ابر از بوستان با چشم گریان می روم
I’m leaving Ishratabad of Isfahan city with eyes shedding blood,
Make it just like the cloud leaves the garden with tearful eyes;
He served his student ‘Makhfi’ till her death in 1701/02 CE. Besides ‘Makhfi, he also taught several Mughal nobles like Motaman al-Dawlah, Mir Maaz al-Din Muhammad Musawi, and Ibrahim Khan (the Subedar of Bengal). He was a man of affluence and sponsored many young poets.
Zeb al-Nisa ‘Makhfi’ always used to show him respect because he taught her esoteric meaning of life in her secluded space, especially after she lost her father’s favor as a ramification of her being supportive of her brother in his rebellion against Aurangzeb.
In 1704 CE He left Patna to perform the Hajj Pilgrimage, but alas died on the way in Munger, Bihar.
1- Diwan-i ashaar-i ‘Ashraf’ Mazandarani by Muhammad Hasan Syedaan
2- A Safavid Poet in the Heart of Darkness: The Indian Poems of Ashraf Mazandarani by Stephen Frederic Dale
3- Daughter of the Sun by Ira Mukhoty
4- Sawaneh-i Zeb al-Nisa ‘Makhfi’ by Seemab Akbarabadi